Happy career leads rabbi to UAHC position in S.F.

In 18 years as a pulpit rabbi, most recently at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura, Berk similarly interacted with families at profound life moments.

In the UAHC position he has held for the past six months, he may not have had the same direct impact on people as he did in his pulpit rabbi days. But "I'm able to touch congregations at various times in congregational life when they have problems or when they are experiencing great joy like installing a new rabbi or dedicating a new building," the affable 45-year-old rabbi said.

The S.F.-based regional office of the UAHC — the Reform movement's central body — represents some 65 congregations in Northern California, Hawaii and northern Nevada. It also includes the Pacific Northwest.

So far, Berk, a Southern California native, has spent much time traversing the region to introduce himself to constituent congregations and consult with them on such basics as rabbinical contract negotiations and capital campaigns.

"I can report that the state of the region is basically a good and happy one," he said. "There are no raging conflicts or any congregations that I'm aware of experiencing extreme difficulty or controversy."

For this, Berk is grateful, though he knows the future could bring all sorts of unexpected challenges. Rabbis in his position, after all, confront everything from synagogues in financial distress to rabbinical misconduct.

Still, "regional directors have honeymoon periods," said Berk. He replaces Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, who served as interim director when Rabbi Morris Hershman stepped down after 25 years.

Berk, a graduate of U.C. Berkeley who held his first pulpit position at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, considers himself a "generalist."

"If you looked at my rabbinate, it would not be characterized by any particular aspect," he said.

In other words, don't call him a "social action rabbi" or an "outreach rabbi." Just call him a rabbi who, to date, boasts a "happy career."

"I have never been unhappy in any position I was in," he said. "To the best of my knowledge, congregations have always been happy to have me."

Berk left the pulpit rabbinate in search of a new challenge, he said. He was also enticed by the idea of being one to whom his rabbinical colleagues could turn for advice and support. "I always thought one of the greatest honors I could have as a rabbi would be to be a rabbi's rabbi," he said.

These days, there is no dearth of rabbis in Berk's life.

In addition to the rabbis he meets on the UAHC trail, he is married to one, Aliza Berk. She's also a psychotherapist — though "only in her family," her husband jokes.

The San Rafael couple attends Congregation Rodef Sholom and has two children — daughter Jenna, 13, and son Jonathan, 11. Both attend school at Brandeis Hillel in Marin.

In deciding to leave his former job and pack up for the Bay Area, Berk said he also considered the direction the movement is taking under Rabbi Eric Yoffie, its president.

"He has been singular in putting forth an agenda which will increase the Torah learning, the piety and the literacy of Reform Jews," Berk said.

Berk, who himself has a strong interest in Talmud and midrash, said that among his goals here, he would like to promote programs that advance Yoffie's educational agenda. He cites the national success of kallot, which bring Jews together for several days of intensive study and prayer led by Reform scholars and teachers.

He would also like to see a social action program conducted on a regional level.

Most of all, perhaps, he wants congregations to know they can turn to him. "I really want to instill in them a sense of trust and confidence that they can rely on this office to respond to their needs."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.